Part Time Neighbours

3:20 pm

There was a package and an envelope on the doorstep of House 82. The envelope was addressed to Mrs Brown. The style of the writing on the envelope was familiar to Maia, one she had come across for the first time some weeks ago in the autumn. The package, which seemed to be a National Geographic magazine, was addressed to her, Maia Brown. She wanted to open both the package and the envelope, but the envelope was for her Mum. Not knowing how to proceed, she sat down on the doorstep.
***
They used to have a National Geographic subscription before but the magazines had stopped arriving soon after Maia’s Dad left the house. Maia wanted to ask her Mum if they could continue getting them for she gained pleasure from looking at pictures of people and places from across the world. But as she began to approach the subject over dinner one evening, she noticed that her Mum began to twirl the spaghetti around her fork with her face looking out of focus, so she changed the topic.

Soon after, Maia made the discovery that the old National Geographic collection in the bookshelf, previously serialized by month and year, dating back to 2005, seemed to be missing several issues. There were specific issues missing which made her suspect that her Mum was either:
  1.           Throwing out her Dad’s favourite issues in anger
  2.        Reading them in secret with fondness

She couldn’t ask her Mum about which of these options was correct nor did she want to cause her any pain by showing a desire to read her Dad’s favourite issues (which were also her favourite).

It was almost autumn half term and the birch and oak trees on the street had begun to shed their leaves. Maia’s classmates were all at their Grandparents or in a cabin somewhere in Switzerland or France. Maia’s Grandparents were dead and her Mum had to work every day. There had been a promise of a weekend trip in Kent in some weeks but she didn’t want to get too excited in case the promise could not be kept. 

Maia and her Mum lived in a small block of council flats in South London.  Their building was the only block like that on the street. All the other houses were Victorian houses, most of them at least a hundred years old. Alicia, her friend next door, told her that she heard her Dad telling someone that some of those houses could sell for over a million. Maia had no imagination of how much that was. There were many cats on the street, sometimes foxes too, lots of trees. She didn’t want to live anywhere else.

One of the Victorian houses on the street that she often stopped to stare at was House 89. The house seemed to be inhabited only during some parts of the year – Autumn to Christmas, marked by the fairy lights hung on the hedge. Last year they forgot to switch the lights off when they left so they were on much longer than Christmas. No one knew who lived there. They arrived in the middle of the night and left in the same way at the end of the season.

One afternoon on her way home from school, Maia stopped by the gate of the house. The spruce tree had grown and covered the arch. Hidden behind the spruce tree was a large bookshelf. On the bookshelf, there was a sign that said ‘Free Books, Help Yourself’.  The sign was written in an old style with an ink pen and covered in plastic.   

A flash of yellow caught her eye and she noticed there was a National Geographic magazine from the 90’s. Maia flipped through the pictures.  There was no one around. She decided to take one. But she always felt strange taking these books from the street without paying even if she didn’t have any money. She opened her backpack and took out a little notebook. Tearing a page off, she wrote, ‘Dear Neighbour in House 89, Thank you for this National Geographic. This issue has pictures about the Mayans. We studied about them in Geography class. Yours sincerely, Maia Brown, House 82’. Maia folded the note and placed it below the books. In case her neighbours might miss it, she wrote on top of the note once again in bold capitals, ‘Thank You, Mr/Mrs Neighbour in House 89’. 

The next day, she noticed that the book case was still there and the shelf was full, as though someone added another magazine to fill the gap left by the one Maia took the previous day. She took the magazine and wrote a thank you note again.

This happened a few times until the last day of school before the half term break. As Maia tried to take the magazine out, the bookshelf came crashing down. Maia jumped out of the way and then bent down to pick up all the books and magazines, when she heard a voice.

“Hey, what are you doing over there?”, the voice asked in an American accent.

Maia saw a boy perhaps a year or two younger than her, staring at her from the alley in the garden. He didn’t come up to her to help her or put the shelf back up again. She continued without replying.

“Are you our neighbour?”, he asked

“Yes I am. Do you think you can come and help me with this book shelf please?”

“Why?”

“It’s on the ground and these books are getting dirt on them.”

“What will you give me?”

“Nothing, as it’s your book shelf.”

“It’s not mine. It’s Grandpa’s.”

Maia didn’t look up or say anything.

“Oh alright. I’ll help. What should I do?”

“First help me push up this shelf and then bring all those books and magazines that are strewn about everywhere.”

“What’s ‘strewn’? You guys talk funny here.”

“It means spread out. All those books that have fallen everywhere, please just pick them up and bring them back.”

Maia and the boy managed to get the shelf up; it wasn’t that heavy and they managed to get the shelf standing.

“What were you doing before the shelf fell down?”

“I was writing a thank you note.”

“What for?”

“For this magazine I was about to take from this bookshelf.”

“But Grandpa said they were free.”

“Yes, that’s what’s written here, but I just wanted to say thank you.”

“Grandpa doesn’t care.”

“That’s alright, I still wanted to say thank you.”

“Why don’t you just say thank you to Grandpa then?”

“I would love to do that.”

“Well why don’t ya. But he definitely won’t care. Don’t say I didn’t warn ya.”

The boy opened the door to House 89 and walked in.

“What are you waiting for? Come on inside.”

Maia was standing on the porch, in disbelief that she would finally be able to go inside House 89 and discover who lived there.

Everything inside was green - the carpet on the floor, the walls, the shoe rack, the furniture. On the wall, there were Japanese prints and large pictures of the Earth and how it was formed millions of years ago. On the right of the hall was a living room and someone was sitting on an arm chair, reading a newspaper and drinking tea.

“Hey Grandpa, this girl wants to thank ya, she talks funny though, don’t say I didn’t warn ya,” the boy said out loud.

“What for?”, the someone from the chair replied, the accent sounded more British and less American.

The boy walked to the living room, Maia followed him.

“I am not sure. For some books or something. Hey, neighbour girl, you tell him.”

“Good evening Sir, I’m Maia from House 82.”

“Eh? Oh. Fine.”

“Thank you for the National Geographic Magazines. I really enjoy reading them.” 
“It was you leaving those notes then eh?”
“Yes, Sir.”
“Well, why are you taking these old magazines then? No one else seems to want them.”

“I like looking at the pictures of people from all over the world. And my Dad used to like them. He read some of the stories to me sometimes.”

“Where’s your Father now?”

“He left.”

“A divorce eh?”

“I don’t know. Well, I better be going. Thank you once again.”

“Oh. Did I offend you? I’m sorry, I speak without thinking sometimes. I don’t know anything about your Father. I bet he is a nice guy if he likes those magazines though.”

Maia smiled.

“Can we have some hot chocolate, Gramps?” Ralph, who had been sitting at the table, dangling his legs and looking up at the ceiling, spoke up.

 “You get right to the point, don’t you boy? You must get it from your mother. Let’s have some then. Do you want to join us then…er…Maia?”

Ralph and his Grandpa both looked at her with raised eyebrows.

“Oh, alright. My Mum won’t be back home until much later anyway.”

“Mine too,” said Ralph

They both laughed.
“Let’s go to the kitchen then,” said the Grandpa.
The kitchen had a skylight and there was a table in the corner. Ralph ran up to it and sat down. Maia followed him. The Grandpa started making the hot chocolate.
 “You know, I liked your little notes, kid. It was the first time I got thank you notes like that for anything. And I’m almost seventy five so I have been around.”

“Thank you, sir. I have to hide the magazines when I’m home though.”

“Why is that?”

“My Mum will think Dad gave them to me,” Maia mumbled. “Anyway, where are you guys from?”

“We are from Upstate New York.”

“That’s New York State not city.” said Ralph

“I need to have a word with your mother about your manners, boy.”

“What? I have to keep telling people at school this all the time.” said Ralph

“Alright but Maia knows where New York state is, don’t you Maia?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“What does your Mother do?”

“She works in an office. That’s all she ever tells me.”

“My Mom is a famous pianist,” said Ralph.

“That’s nice, do you learn the piano too?” said Maia.
“I’m learning the violin, I guess.”
“Hot chocolate’s ready,” the Grandpa places the mugs on the table.

“It’s delicious, Sir. Thank you.” Maia said, then paused, and finally burst out. “Why do you all always stay only a while? Do you come here from the U.S every year?”
“Well, more or less. I was born here in London. This is my childhood home. But then I moved to the States with my family when our son, Ralph’s father, was twelve. He is an orchestra conductor, you see.  And he got married to a pianist in New York State. So now we come back here from time to time for a season – normally from Fall to Christmas or just for Fall so both can participate in London’s orchestras.”
“Oh. Will you leave again soon then?”
“Yes. We are leaving next week.”
“Oh. Is Fall…autumn?”
The Grandpa laughed, “Yes, that’s how we call it in America.”
“You really talk funny, don’t you, neighbour girl,” said Ralph.
The clock sounded seven gongs and Maia got up to leave.
“I must go now, thank you for everything. It was lovely to meet you.”
“See you around, young lady.”
Ralph walked her to the door and stood at the door till she crossed the street.
“Bye, neighbour girl!”
A few days later, as Maia passed the house, she noticed that Ralph was sitting outside, cross legged.
“Hey Ralph!”
“Hi Maia,” he replied, his voice barely audible.
“Are you alright?”
“It’s Gramps’ birthday today. I just wish I could do something for him.”
“Well, why don’t you?”
“Yeah right. What can a kid like me do?”
“Hmm, what do you normally do then?” said Maia coming up to him and sitting down next to him on the door step.
“We get dressed and go out for dinner to a restaurant. But we are leaving tomorrow and today my parents have an Orchestra. They won’t be back till late at night. I guess we’ll go for dinner when we are back home. But…Gramps’ birthday is today!”
“Don’t you guys do cakes and cards and things?”
“Well, yeah, we have a cake at the restaurant.”
“Your Mum doesn’t bake one?”
“My parents don’t have time to bake cakes.”
Maia thought about her Mum, staying up late after work every year, to bake her a birthday cake. Sometimes she did that even on normal days.
They were both quiet in thought.
“I know! Let’s bake your Grandpa a cake!”
Ralph looked at her, his eyes wide. “Are you for real?.”
Maia nodded.
“Do you have any money? I have…”, Maia emptied her pockets, “four quid.”
“I have, six! My Mom gave me some pocket money last week. But….I don’t know how to make a cake.”
“I do, we learnt it in school. We just need to be careful using the oven but the one we have is easy to use.”
They went to the shop on the corner of the street and bought flour, eggs, raspberries, chocolate and butter.  The shopkeeper, who knew Maia, threw in some candles for free when he discovered what the children were planning to do. Maia and Ralph ran to Maia’s house and mixed the ingredients for the cake using an old cake tin that Maia’s Mum used. As the cake baked in the oven, they sat on the table.
“Wish we had a card or something,” said Ralph.
“Well, why don’t we make one while the cake bakes?”
“I never made a card before.”
“Wait a moment, I think I have an idea.”
Maia went up to her room and brought back a National Geographic magazine that her Dad had gifted her ages ago for her own collection. It was one of her favourite issues of all time because there was a hand out in it full of pictures of how the Earth was created. Her Dad and she had spent many Sunday afternoons looking at those pictures together. Maia took the handout and looked at it for a long time. Then she started cutting the pictures out.
“Hey, what are you doing? Are you sure you want to do that?” asked Ralph.
Maia started crying.
“Oh no, you are sad! Please don’t cry, neighbour girl.”
“I’m not sad. Your Grandpa’s old magazines made me very happy these last few weeks.”
“I’ll help you then! How can I help you?”
Maia wiped her eyes. “There’s a large paper and some glue over there. Can you please bring it?”
They stuck the pictures of the Earth on the paper and folded it.
“Here, Ralph, here’s a sketch pen, you write your Grandpa a note.”
“What should I write?”
“Whatever you feel like.”
Ralph thought for a while then wrote. “Happy Birthday, Gramps! We didn’t go to a restaurant this year, but I’m glad anyway. I hope you like the cake and this card. I made fun of your book shelf, but thanks to it, we made a new friend. If you need any help, tell me! Love you so much.”
“You sign it too.”
Maia signed the card. The timer sounded, the cake was ready. They put a lid on the cake tin.
“Shall we go then?” said Maia, grinning.
“Yeah! Oh wait, we forgot the candles”. Ralph put the candles in the cake. “But we can’t light them.”
“It’s alright, your Grandpa can help us with that. Let’s go now.”
They walked up to House 89, the door was open. They walked in. The Grandpa was sitting in the living room, on the same armchair from last time, reading a newspaper.
They started singing Happy Birthday.
“Hey, what’s all this?”
“We made you a cake, Gramps! Can you light these candles?”
“You made me a cake? How did you do that?”
“Maia showed me!”
“Oh, hello Maia.”
“Happy Birthday, Sir.”
“This is a surprise, I haven’t had a cake for my birthday in a very long time. Shall we go to the kitchen then? We can light the candles and make some more hot chocolate.”
In the kitchen, they sang happy birthday when the Grandpa blew all the candles. Then Ralph handed his Gramps the card.
The Grandpa read the card in silence, then looked up at Maia and Ralph, and read the card again.  He didn’t say anything for a while. When he spoke, he finally said, “Children, thank you.”
“I wish we weren’t going tomorrow,” said Ralph.
“You will just have to come back again next year, won’t you?” said Maia. “And then you can tell me about all the cakes you baked, now you know how to do it.”
They sat at the table, all together, eating a big slice of the raspberry cake, sipping hot chocolate, the card placed right in the middle.

***
It had been a few weeks since Ralph and his Grandpa left for America. Now Maia sat at the doorstep, with the package and the envelope in her hands.
“Maia, darling, what are you doing outside? Aren’t you cold?”
“Hi Mum.”
“Are you alright?”
“Yes, I was just waiting for you! Welcome home!”
“Thank you, my dear. What’s that you are holding?”
“I think our neighbours from House 89 sent us something.”
“Really? The Campbells? I thought they live in America.”
“Yes, but they were here over the Autumn.”
“Oh that’s right, they come by for a few months, don’t they. Hang on, the envelope is addressed to me? And is that a National Geographic magazine? How curious.”
Maia’s Mum opened the envelope. There was a letter inside. She read it and smiled.
“What does it say?”
Maia’s Mum hugged Maia, holding her very close.
“I’m so proud of you, my darling. Just so proud.”
“Thanks Mum. But what does it say?”
“Here, you read it.”
Maia opened the note. It was from the Grandpa.
Dear Mrs Brown,
We haven’t met before but I had the wonderful chance of meeting with your daughter, Maia, some weeks ago. I had some old National Geographic Magazines that I left on the street, and she took some but always left a thank you note. My grandson, Ralph and I enjoyed her company very much. My son and daughter in law work long hours and I fear Ralph feels lonely when we are in London, but just meeting your daughter, even if it was only a few times, seems to have given him energy and changed him in some way; it certainly changed me. The kids even made me a cake and card for my seventy-fifth birthday, a joy I haven’t experienced since my wife passed away over five years ago. I signed Maia up for a monthly National Geographic magazine subscription. She seemed to enjoy reading these magazines and I thought it fitting, given the form of her birthday card for me. I hope you don’t mind. I would love to meet with you the next time we are in town, likely next year.
Best wishes, your part time neighbour,
Henry Campbell, House 89”
Maia folded the letter and put it back in the envelope.
“So I can read the National Geographics then? Won’t you be sad?”
Maia’s Mum looked at her. “Of course you can, you silly child. Why would I be sad?”
“It’s just that…”
“We have to move forward, Maia. Also, don’t think I didn’t notice all those old magazines you were bringing to the house from the street.”
They laughed.
“By the way, what was in this card you made Mr Campbell?”
“Oh, just some old pictures of the Earth. I thought he might like them.”


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